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Virtual or not, Air Force Marathon still a big draw

Bill Neitzke, 88th Air Base Wing safety director, participates in the Pride Month 5K through Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Huffman Prairie on June 24. Neitzke routinely competes in races, including 17 marathons in his running career, seven of which have been the Air Force Marathon. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)

Bill Neitzke, 88th Air Base Wing safety director, participates in the Pride Month 5K through Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Huffman Prairie on June 24. Neitzke routinely competes in races, including 17 marathons in his running career, seven of which have been the Air Force Marathon. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- According to popular running websites, only 1% of the U.S. population has ever completed a 26.2-mile marathon, and those who do finish the race with an average time of 4 hours and 45 minutes.

Bill Neitzke, the 88th Air Base Wing’s safety director, is among that small percentage, having completed at least 17 full marathons, as well as two 50-kilometer races, which are just over 31 miles.

Of those 17, seven have been the Air Force Marathon. He’s run the race every year since his arrival at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in late 2014, including this fall, which he finished in 4:19:10.

“I started running in high school, but I didn’t start running marathons until I was in my 30s,” Neitzke said. “So I’ve been running marathons for close to 20 years.”

He finds the key to running any marathon is good training, so he begins race prep about 18 weeks before race day.

“I pull a training plan down from the internet before every single race I run in order to prepare,” he said. “What’s nice is that there are plans for all experience levels, and they can be based on what your goals for the race are.”

However, there’s nothing like race day itself, especially when it comes to the Air Force Marathon, Neitzke says.

“The day starts off pretty early in the morning so that it can be cooler while you run,” he said. “But it’s fun because the race draws a huge crowd and I often will see people that I only see once a year at this race.”

In years past, he’s even bumped into former Air Force Academy classmates on the backside of the flightline. 

“It’s awesome when that happens because I didn’t know they were going to be here and I just happen to run across them,” he added.

Held the third Saturday in September, the Air Force’s premier running event also features aircraft flyovers, fireworks, parachute jumpers and performances by the Air Force Band of Flight.

Unfortunately, the race had to transition from in-person to virtual the past two years due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“The 2020 marathon, we knew pretty early that it wasn’t going to be possible to hold it in-person,” Neitzke said. “We were hopeful for the race this year, but it just wasn’t possible to do it safely.”

The marathon draws around 10,000 runners annually, in addition to the more than 2,500 volunteers needed to pull off the eventful day.

“It was sad for Air Force leadership to make the call, but it was the right call,” he said. “However, in my opinion, the virtual race is even harder than the in-person marathon itself in some ways.

“In person, there’s that team support, that group of folks out there that you see and we all work through it together. Virtually, I’m by myself. Essentially, my house is the start-finish line, the aid station is my driveway, and I would just go out and run multiple loops and come back and check in occasionally. So that part was convenient, but you lose all of the support.”

With this in mind, Air Force Marathon officials started an official Facebook group last year for runners to participate in.

“We started this group in order to give runners a way to still connect and share in the Air Force Marathon experience,” said Alexandra Hausfeld, marketing coordinator for the Air Force Marathon. “It gives them a place to encourage one another, share pictures of their run, race times and ask questions.”

COVID-19 aside, the Air Force Marathon has always had some sort of a virtual presence.

“Remember, they would run races in deployed locations,” Neitzke said. “When it was over, they would ship the runners all their medals and shirts and other swag that they would have gotten if they were here in person. We have just made the virtual portion bigger and more inclusive. We have opened that up for essentially nondeployed personnel, and it has turned out to be great.”

Neitzke sees pandemic restrictions as another opportunity for resilience.

“We talk about resilience all the time. How do you get past things that happen that you weren’t expecting or maybe weren’t quite prepared for that are hard?” Neitzke asked. “This is one of those things.”

Citing a book he recently read, Neitzke said between 95% and 99% of runners who train for their first marathon and get to the starting line — they actually finish.

“This is an incredible amount, because your average person, if they just showed up and were going to run 26 miles, could never do it,” Neitzke said. “However, with the right training (and) right mental preparation, you become resilient enough to be able to make it through those 26 miles.”

While it’s too early to say what 2022 will hold for the Air Force Marathon, Neitzke encourages people to plan on running it either way.

“If you take the time to decide to try and run one of these races and train, it will teach you resilience. It will enhance the resilience you already have and it will make you stronger, both physically and mentally,” he said.

Runners wishing to join the Air Force Marathon Facebook Group can visit www.facebook.com/groups/airforcemarathon.